Let's talk about heroes.

In North American media, the term 'hero' seems to have taken on an aspect of elasticity to which it is clearly ill-suited. Granted, this elasticity is not boundless -- media on this continent don't tend to refer to, say, gardeners as heroes, unless the gardeners in question happen to take a break from pruning to save a drowning child.

Still, it remains the case that the label 'hero' seems to get applied, almost unblinkingly, to nearly any soldier or military figure who loses his or her life in combat. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but it seems that, more often than not, when a soldier dies in battle, the Ubiquitous Term gets thrown immediately into the fray of public discourse.

None of what I am saying denies that it is often a courageous choice to join the military, let alone to then allow oneself to be shipped off to a combat zone where your fellow soldiers -- some of whom you may even know -- are being wounded and, in some cases, killed. But there is a difference between courage and heroism as such. Indeed, to conflate the two diminishes the value of the latter term -- such that a Canadian soldier who held a Victorian Cross could conceivably have been equated with the four Canadian soldiers who were accidentally bombed and killed by a U.S. plane, four years ago (or, for that matter, with Private Mark Graham, a Hamilton resident killed this week in Afghanistan in a friendly fire incident, with it being once again left to the Americans to Regret This Unfortunate Incident). While one potential way around this dilemma involves speaking of degrees of heroism, it remains necessary to clearly distinguish 'heroism' as a category all its own. To opt instead for a slippery slope leading into the realm of the False Parallel (where heroism = courageousness), would be to rob the term 'hero' of its significance.

At this point, it would be fair to ask: why is Nim distinguishing courage and heroism in this way? Does Nim believe that circular reasoning is a virtue? Is Nim not that heroic, after all? And who the hell is Nim, anyway?

For starters, I am not claiming definitional fiat over the terminology under scrutiny here and alternate definitions or understandings are always welcome (note, for what it's worth, the Merriam-Webster perspective: that dictionary refers to the hero as one who attains 'a noble end' and the courageous individual as s/he who is able to face 'danger or extreme difficulty'). Roughly speaking, we might say that the hero is a person who (in the case of a soldier, or police officer, or fire fighter, etc.) either goes well beyond the call of duty, or else performs his job to the utmost perfection. In brief, it is often a matter of exceptional behaviour. Courage can also conduce to exceptional behaviour of a kind, yet not necessarily to the same extent: for instance, it might be courageous for me to stand up to a bully who was harassing my little brother (assuming I had a little brother, which I don't; also assuming that I had the courage to defend even a hypothetical younger sibling, also a dubious assumption). Yet we would hardly be inclined to call this action heroic, anymore than we would say it was heroic for a news editor at a major daily newspaper to stand her ground, in the face of pressure from her superiors, on some important matter of conscience. Both acts take courage, but neither is heroic in any clearcut sense.

We might, then, say this: while courage is often, if not always, a prerequisite for heroism, it does not always equate with the latter. To wit: to be hit by an American bomb, when a Canadian soldier, is distressing if not tragic; further, courage may have been required on the part of said soldier to end up in a position where such a bomb was likely to land nearby. Yet nowhere in this formulation, as far as I can tell, can the term 'heroism' be justifiably inserted.

So why does it? Why the ritualistic abuse of language when it comes to talk of Our Heroes? Though I am not confident of being able to point to any one specific causal factor, suffice it to say that a propensity towards such abuse is with us at the best of times, let alone those of war or crisis, when the urge to myth-make or erect great figures is strongest. The Question Of Causality is one that I would like to take up again in subsequent weeks, as the war in Afghanistan offers Canadian media in particular, repeat opportunities to feed its addiction to false lionization.

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